Personal: Make mine a vegetarian: Many introduction agencies are aimed at people with similar interests, but one group of matchmakers caters for a whole lifestyle, says Emma Cook

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The Independent Online
A Sunday afternoon at Tattershall Castle, a boat-cum-pub moored on the Thames in London, and the air is filled with the smell of barbecued food - hot dogs and beefburgers.

The conspicuous consumption of red meat - not a veggieburger in sight - makes it seem an unlikely venue for VMM (Vegetarian MatchMakers) members to meet up for the last leg of their weekend social event known as 'Fond Farewells'.

Despite the lack of vegetarian fare, the group are in high spirits. They spent yesterday at a film museum, followed by a boat trip and a vegetarian meal, ending up at a West End nightclub. As well as contacting like-minded eaters through a regular mailing list, members can meet up with each other through about 50 national events, including a number of London weekends.

Today the group is all male. Were the women more successful last night than the men? Apparently not. According to Peter, the social events organiser, there are equal numbers of male and female members, but the women are slightly less likely to attend group events. 'Maybe they're more reluctant to enter situations where they think it's obvious to others that they're looking for a man,' he says.

In the absence of any women, the conversation turns to the subject of eating habits. Nobody here could contemplate entering into a relationship with a carnivore, which is why they're here today. Two women on a nearby table are devouring enormous cheeseburgers and chips. This is clearly the sort of woman a male VMM member has paid to avoid, but why? 'If a girl wants to turn her stomach into a graveyard that's OK, but kissing her is awkward,' says Brian, 23, a computer operator.

Daniel, 39, feels just as squirmish about touching lips that have been in contact with dead animal. He was attracted to the agency after seeing it advertised in a vegetarian magazine. 'It asked you to imagine kissing someone only to discover that they have just eaten a burger,' he says.

For Daniel, it was a persuasive image and he joined straight away. Now he doesn't have to face that risk. 'It doesn't turn my stomach,' he adds. 'But I do find the idea very distasteful.'

For Brian, a member for four years and vegan for the last two, a meeting of lips untainted by meat should also be a meeting of minds. He treats vegetarianism as more than just a diet, and would like a potential partner to feel the same way. 'Hopefully, we'd have a similar outlook on life,' he says. 'And at least meal times wouldn't be a perpetual squabble.'

He became a vegetarian seven years ago after hearing a short narrative on a song that described shooting a bolt through a bullock's brain to slaughter it. The thought of being in close proximity to raw meat now repels him.

He describes an episode when one of his flatmates left a bag of liver to defrost in the fridge, dripping blood on to his shelf below. 'My food was covered in all this red ice. I figured it was an accident waiting to happen, so I wrapped my food in plastic after that.'

Other members stopped eating meat for health reasons, but gradually came to identify with the moral aspects of vegetarianism. Peter, aged 50 and divorced, joined VMM to meet a partner who would understand his lifestyle and outlook. Many meat-eating women of a similar age, he feels, may view male vegetarians as rather less than macho. 'In the second-hand market, you have to consider how attractive a vegetarian is to a woman carnivore who wants to be taken to a flesh steak-house'

Talking to Brian and Peter, it is easy to imagine female meat-eaters as bloodthirsty vampires sucking greedily on their blue-rare steaks. Female vegetarians on the other hand, are sensitive, compassionate and nurturing.

'VMM women are more caring,' asserts Dick, 46, a lecturer in electronics systems who joined the agency last summer. 'At other dating organisations you tend to meet the power-dressing, businesswomen types, and that's not me.' Vegetarians are, he believes, less competitive and grasping. 'I think they're just nice people and that's based on experience and theory.'

The agency is the brainchild of Hilary Jago, who set up VMM soon after her divorce in 1990. Finding it almost impossible to meet vegetarian singles, she decided there was 'clearly a business opportunity'.

The opportunity is expanding: a recent Gallup survey reports that 2,000 people a week are switching to a non-meat diet, 45 per cent of them citing the health benefits as a reason. There are nearly 2.5 million vegetarians in the UK, rising to 6 million if those who have given up red meat are included.

However, VMM has a stable membership of about 400, a number Ms Jago doesn't envisage increasing. 'Any organisation with a huge membership is doing something wrong. You should be getting people to meet and then disappear fast.'

It is successful, she believes, because it is based on the idea that vegetarians think about things in a different way than their meat-eating peers. 'It's about believing in the sanctity of life. Members have got such an important thing in common.'

Moira, 46, a teacher, met Richard through the agency 18 months ago. For them, vegetarianism was the vital bond. 'It's fundamental to me,' she explains. 'We feel the same way about things; the treatment of the whole environment.'

So where does somebody like Hitler, said to be a devout vegetarian for part of his life, fit into this network of shared values? Brian explodes at the idea. 'Hitler wasn't - it's just a myth that's done the rounds.'

Vegetarians could never possibly be fascists, only followers of peace and world harmony. 'You could make a good case for saying Jesus was a vegetarian,' says Brian. 'OK so he might have had a bit of fish. But you can bet if he was around today, he wouldn't be eating animals.'